Придворный соловей (Our Court nightingale) by Varlam Shalamov

Our court nightingale,

beak open wide,

can let out the loudest

trills in the world.

The creature is stunning

by what pours from his throat –

but it was he who spurred

Derzhavin to write

that praise and flattery

are by no means the same:

a slave can flatter

but he can’t do praise.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1955?)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun facts: The Dershavin mentioned in th epoem is Gavriil (Gavrila) Romanovich Derzhavin (Гавриил (Гаврила) Романович Державин, 14 July 1743 – 20 July 1816) who was one of the most highly esteemed Russian poets before Alexander Pushkin, as well as a statesman. Although his works are traditionally considered literary classicism, his best verse is rich with antitheses and conflicting sounds in a way reminiscent of John Donne and other metaphysical poets.

Original Russian cyrillic version:

Придворный соловей
Раскроет клюв пошире,
Бросая трель с ветвей,
Крикливейшую в мире.

Не помнит божья тварь
Себя от изумленья,
Долбит, как пономарь,
Хваленья и моленья.

Свистит что было сил,
По всей гремя державе,
О нем и говорил
Язвительный Державин,

Что раб и похвалить
Кого-либо не может.
Он может только льстить,
Что не одно и то же.

 

A recital of the Russian version set to music:

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‘Gotta keep living, though I’ve died twice’ Osip Mandelstam

Gotta keep living, though I’ve died twice,

and water’s driving the city crazy:

how beautiful, what high cheekbones, how happy,

how sweet the fat earth to the plough,

how the steppe extends in an April upheaval,

and the sky, the sky – pure Michelangelo…

 

by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam. His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam)

(1935)

translated by Andrew Davis

What Are We To Do? by Daniil Kharms

While the dolphin and the sea-horse

Played silly games together,

The ocean beat against the cliffs

And washed the cliffs with its water.

The scary water moaned and cried.

The stars shone. Years went by.

Then the horrid hour came:

I am no more, and so are you,

The sea is gone, the cliffs, the mountains,

And the stars gone, too;

Only the choir sounds out of the dead void.

And for simplicity’s sake, our wrathful God

Sprung up and blew away the dust of centuries,

And now, freed from the shackles of time

He flies alone, his own and only dearest friend.

Cold everywhere, and darkness blind.

 

by ‘Dandan‘ a pseudonym used by Даниил Иванович Хармс (Daniil Ivanovich Kharms)

a.k.a. Даниил Иванович Ювачёв (Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov)

(15 October 1934)

translated by Matvei Yankelevich


Fun fact: A dandan or dendan is a mythical sea creature that appears in volume 9 of ‘The Book of One Thousand and One Nights’ (or more commonly ‘Arabian Nights’). It appears in the tale “Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman”, where the merman tells the fisherman that the dandan is the largest fish in the sea and is the enemy of the mermen. A dendan is capable of swallowing a ship and all its crew in a single gulp. Kharms was probably aware of this and thus played on it for one of his pseudonyms.

‘Perechin sat on a thumbtack…’ by Daniil Kharms

Perechin sat on a thumbtack, and from that moment his life changed drastically. Ordinarily a thoughtful, quiet person, Perechin transformed into a typical scoundrel. He grew out his mustache and from that point onwards trimmed them with exceptional clumsiness, so that one of his mustaches was always longer than the other. And, generally speaking, his mustache grew a bit crooked. It became impossible to even look at Perechin. Adding to that, he got in the habit of winking and jerking his jowl in the most loathsome manner. For a while, Perechin limited himself to petty baseness: he gossiped, he ratted, and he cheated tram conductors by paying them in the smallest bronze coins and always underpaying by two or even three kopecks.

 

by Даниил Иванович Хармс (Daniil Ivanovich Kharms)

a.k.a. Даниил Иванович Ювачёв (Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov)

(Wednesday, 14 October 1940)

translated by Matvei Yankelevich

‘Oh Don’t Look Back’ but Olga Berggolts

Oh don’t look back

at that ice

at that dark;

there, waiting greedily

for you is a look

that will demand an answer.

 

I looked back today. And suddenly,

I saw him – alive and with living eyes,

looking at me out of the ice,

my one and only, for all time.

 

I hadn’t known it was like that;

I’d thought I lived and breathed another.

But Oh, my joy, my dream, my death,

I only live beneath your gaze.

 

I have been faithful to him alone;

in that alone I have done right:

to all the living, I’m his wife;

to you and me – your widow.

 

by Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц (Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts)

a.k.a. Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz

(1947)

translated by Robert Chandler


A Soviet poet, writer, playwright and journalist. She is most famous for her work on the Leningrad radio during the city’s blockade, when she became the symbol of city’s strength and determination.

Olga was married a number of times. In 1925 she joined a youth literature group ‘The Shift’ where she became acquainted with Boris Kornilov. In 1927 Boris and Olga entered the State Institute of Art History, and in 1928 they got married. In 1930 she graduated from the philological faculty and was sent to Kazakhstan to work as a journalist for the Soviet Steppe newspaper. During this period Olga divorced Kornilov and married her fellow student Nikolay Molchanov. Her former husband Boris Kornilov was arrested “for taking part in the anti-Soviet Trotskyist organization” and executed on February 1938. In January 1942 she survived another personal tragedy: her second husband Nikolay Molchanov died of hunger. Olga later dedicated a poem 29 January 1942 and her book The Knot (1965) to Nikolay. On March 1942 Olga, who suffered from a critical form of dystrophy, was forcefully sent by her friends to Moscow using the Road of Life, despite her protests. On 20 April she returned to Leningrad and continued her work at the Radio House. On her return she married Georgy Makogonenko, a literary critic, also a radio host during the siege.

‘And so I keep going’ by Varlam Shalamov

And so I keep going;

death remains close;

I carry my life

in a blue envelope.

 

The letter’s been ready

ever since autumn:

just one little word –

it couldn’t be shorter.

 

But I still don’t know

where I should send it;

if I had the address,

my life might have ended.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1955?)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘No, not the moon – the bright face of a clock’ by Osip Mandelstam

No, not the moon – the bright face of a clock

glimmers to me. How is it my fault

that I perceive the feeble stars as milky?

And I hate Batyushkov’s unbounding arrogance:

What time is it? Someone simply asked –

and he replied to them: eternity!

 

by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam. His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam)

(1912)

translated by Boris Dralyuk


Fun fact: Such an exchange did occur between Konstanin Batyushkov and his doctor and in his poem ‘For The Tombstone of a Little Girl’ he imagined a dead baby saying to her parents ‘Dear ones, don’t cry! / Envy my ephemerality; / I did not know this life, / And know eternity’ (translation by Peter France).